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U.S. Collegiate Teams Claim Top Spots at International Soils Judging Contest in Korea

Usda-NRCS soil scientist travels to Korea to assist with competition

National soil judging contests pit the top collegiate teams in the nation against each other, and enable students to develop skills in soil science, hopefully leading them to a career in natural resources management. Maxine Levin is USDA-NRCS National Leader for Soil Interpretations with the National Soil Survey Center. “Soil and land judging at the high school and collegiate level is a baseline entry for young people to study the land and learn to read the landscape so that they can better manage and protect it,” she explained. For the past four years, Levin has worked with numerous colleagues in the National Cooperative Soil Survey partnership, the Soil Science Society of America, and the International Union of Soil Scientists to launch the first International Soil Judging Contest. The event took place June 5-7, in Jeju Korea. Two teams of U.S. collegiate students and their coaches, sponsored by the Soil Science of America, the Agronomic Science Foundation, and their universities, traveled to Jeju for the competition. Levin represented NRCS and arrived early to help prepare the contest along with, Steve Cattle, University of Sydney (Australia), Cristine Morgan, Texas A& M University, and David Weindorf, Texas Technology University. Together, they offered guidance to the international coaches and students, and served as official judges for the contest which was held in conjunction with the 20th World Congress of Soil Science (20WCSS). Thirteen teams from ten countries, representing five continents, converged on the island of Jeju to interpret Korea’s volcanic soils. The contest hosted teams from the USA, Japan, China, Korea, South Africa, Australia, Taiwan, Mexico, Hungary, and the United Kingdom.

The theme, “globally qualified to get dirty,” illustrates the spirit of camaraderie and fun which infused the event. The international contest focused on both team and individual performance. Team USA-B and Team USA-A were victorious, earning the first and second highest team scores, respectively. Tyler Witkowski (Team USA-B) earned second place overall out of 45 contestants with his individual score. Emily Salkind, Virginia Tech, Nancy Kammerer, Penn State, Julia Gillespie, Virginia Tech, and Caitlin Hodges, University of Georgia, finished 4th through 8th, respectively.

Collegiate soil judging contests in the U.S. date back over fifty-four years, and involve the description, classification and interpretation of soil. The events help students recognize important soil and landscape properties and consider these characteristics when deciding how to use soils appropriately, and with conservation in mind. A contest involves judgers, generally college soil, agronomy, and environmental science majors, who enter a soil pit to explore the soil profile. A soil profile consists of four soil layers referred to as horizons—the O, A, B, and C horizons— with each composed of different soil materials. The judges then determine where the different horizons are and describe each one, inspecting factors such as soil type, color, depth, consistency, shape, structure, and other features. The soil is then classified, and site and soil interpretations are performed. “The students interpreted the soil and land conservation for what the people on Jeju Island are most economically interested in--tangerines, carrots, golf courses and septic tank suitability,” said Levin. “Participating in the soil judging contest gives students the confidence to go anywhere in the world and describe what they see in the context of land management. With their peers, they learn together to communicate the language of soil science and collaborate professionally to make the best decisions for economic and environmental conservation. ”

David Lindbo is a Professor of Soil Science at North Carolina State University and Past President of the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). He attended the conference where he met and spoke with attendees from all over the world. “We distributed nearly 20,000 copies of the “I Love Soils” stickers at the conference, in eleven different languages,” he said. He also said the experience was valuable to the students from a number of different perspectives. “In this field of soil science, employers really look for students that have soil judging experience, but it’s not all about winning. It is also about knowing how to work with a team, being skilled at soil description, and mastering the ability to capture that in writing. ” He said the students’ participation at an international competition will make them more marketable as they enter the workforce. “These students represent the future of soil science so giving them an international perspective early in their career is critical to ensuring our science is viewed as globally important,” said Lindbo.

Organizing an international contest of this scope is no easy task. But professors Cristine Morgan and Stephen Cattle joined forces to make the first international contest a reality. Morgan is also the Texas A&M soil judging team coach, and after attending the Joint Australian and New Zealand Soil Science Conference in 2012, and meeting and working with Professor Cattle, she said it was time to take soil judging to an international level. “These contests generate enthusiasm for soil sciences,” she says, “It reminds me of why I got into the discipline. ”  She said that between Stephen and her, there is a lot of institutional knowledge about such contests, as both have coached college teams and coordinated national competitions. This endeavor however was different. “It was risky, as this was the first ever international contest,” she said. “But, it’s been in the planning stages for years and we had great support and help from the local planning committee in Korea.” She described the arduous schedule, which included two days of soil judging practice in eight different soil pits. On the day of the contest, the students, “explored two soil pits in garlic fields, and then traveled to a mountain where they investigated Andisols, or volcanic ash soils. ” The competing teams were composed of four students and a coach. The two U.S. teams included students that earned the highest scores this April at the National Collegiate Soils Contest in Doylestown, PA.

Dr. Morgan said preparations are already underway for the next contest, which will take place in 2018 in Brazil at the next World Congress of Soil Science. In the meantime, at least five countries have committed to conducting their own national contests next year. Levin, Morgan and Cattle also teamed up to present a poster at the conference which earned top honors. The poster, Soil Judging as an instrument for community-building in the discipline of soil science, explored the history of soil judging, its benefits, and how supporting such contest can “bolster the strength and ensure the future of the soil science community. ”

The winning team, USA-, was coached by Dr. Chris Baxter, Professor of Soil and Crop Science at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville. “The competition was exceptionally well-organized and provided an outstanding learning experience for the students. Our Korean hosts and contest organizers worked very hard to select sites that were representative of soils that are of economic and environmental importance to Jeju Island, and provided the coaches all the necessary information we needed to instruct our students. ” He also said that opportunities were offered for students from different teams to interact with each other and make friends, and that his students took full advantage of this. “I believe all of the U.S. students made friends with students from other countries while there, even when they didn't speak the same language. ” Finally, Dr. Baxter said it was a bit of a challenge clearing customs in Korea. “Having to explain traveling with the tools involved in soil judging, which includes large knives, was interesting!” He also said that many of the contestants from other
countries were actually graduate students in soil science. “The fact that the U.S. students were able to excel in this competition is a testament to the excellent education they are receiving at their respective universities. They were all well-prepared before we even started practicing for the competition, which made my job as coach much easier. ”

The team claiming second place overall was led by Dr. John Galbraith, Associate Professor of Soil and Wetland Sciences at Virginia Tech. To prepare his team he developed an online teaching website with travel tips, contest information, cultural information about Korea, as well as geology and soils information. He said one of the highlights of the contest was that the students “learned how to be professional, to represent their country, to meet peers from other countries, to learn about diverse cultures, and they were afforded the chance to explore soils and geology much different than any they had seen before.”

The U.S. win in Korea transpires just in time for what promises to be a grand occasion for soil and soil science. The 68th United Nations General Assembly recently declared 2015 as the International Year of Soils. Pam Thomas, Associate Director of NRCS’ Soil Science Division, in Washington, D.C., said, “NRCS is gearing up to shine the spotlight on soil science in 2015, and we hope to clearly illustrate how soil science impacts our everyday lives, and how farmers and landowners can help protect and improve soil resources. ” This exposure will also help NRCS attract the best and brightest and encourage them to consider a career in soil science. “Most of the students competing in Korea from the U.S. are currently being considered for positions with USDA’s Pathways Program,” said Levin. Through this internship program, USDA offers different opportunities for students and recent graduates to work in the agricultural, science, technology, math, environmental, management, business and many other fields. Hopefully, some of these outstanding students will be future NRCS employees. “This was one of the best experiences of my entire career, and I am hopeful that our U.S. student competitors will remember it as a touchstone that they can make a difference, seeing the world globally through soil science,” concluded Levin.

Team USA in Korea








Team USA: L to R: Tyler Witkowski, U of Maryland (2nd place overall high scorer);
Caitlin Hodges, Bianca Peixoto, John Galbraith (Coach), Emily Salkind, Brian Maule,
Nancy Kammerer, Julia Gillespie, Kyle Weber, Chris Baxter (Coach).